EC 044: Lean Principles in the Building Reuse Industry (BMRA)38 min read
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In this podcast, I share a webinar that I gave with Matt Horvat of Lean Portland, and Kelly Stevens from The Rebuilding Center.
We were asked to talk about our experiences applying Lean to the building reuse industry, which includes work over the past few years with The Rebuilding Center and Habitat for Humanity Restore (multiple locations).
The slides (PDF) are available for download here.
Brion (B): I wanted to share with you guys a webinar that Matt Horvat and I put together for BMRA. They are the Building Materials Reuse Association. The Executive Director, Joe Connell, reached out to us. We had met Joe when he was the Director over at Portland Restore, which is part of Habitat for Humanity, soon after he took the BMRA job but really liked what we presented and wanted to share that with this industry. They’re a nonprofit that promotes the vibrant building materials economy and that’s part of A World Without Waste. And so really cool organization that they have going on and they put on conferences and they have memberships with a lot of people in the reuse or deconstruction industry, so lines up well with organizations like the Rebuilding Center that we work with and it worked out the last couple of years.
The presentation we put together was talking about Lean in the building reuse industry and we had some help with the presentation from the Rebuilding Center. Cody Stevens was able to support us during the webinar, which was great, and Chris Larson, who is the process improvement person at the Rebuilding Center now, he was helping us put together some of the slides and some of the photos that were there.
So in preparation for this webinar, Matt and I went over to the Rebuilding Center and got a view of some of the recent updates and they’ve been really making some changes. If you’re in the Portland area, please check them out and you’ll notice that they’ve slowly been chipping away at some of the ascetics on the outside and building some infrastructure in place, so really cool what they’ve been doing lately. Then Matt also did a gemba walk over at one of the deconstruction sites in Vancouver, Washington and took some notes and comments of where he saw some opportunities. That was what we were trying to convey in the seminar here, so hopefully, you enjoy it. Check it out, let us know what you think, and thanks for listening.
Joe (J): This is Joe Connell, Executive Director for BMRA, as I was just saying before I remembered to record. We’re hearing from Brion Hurley and Matt Horvat today about Lean principles for building reuse. I ran reuse centers for 13 years; I know all too well what it takes and what the struggles are, and I started to say earlier, I wish that I had known Brion 15 years ago. It would have saved me a lot of agony. We’re hoping today that Brion and Matt can teach us something about Lean principles and how they relate to our industry.
One reminder before we go, if you can mute yourself so we don’t hear background noise, that would be terrific, and if you would use the chat box for questions, then we can filter questions in that way. I think, because we have a small crowd, we can deal with questions along the way. All right, Matt, Brion, you guys want to take it away?
B: Sure. This is Brion Hurley. Hi everyone. We were trying to get Chris Larson from the Rebuilding Center; he’s got some family commitments today, but I think Kelly Stevens can also join in and maybe add some comments as needed as we go through.
Matt (M): Morning. This is Matt Horvat.
B: We’ll kind of jump back and forth a little bit and kind of just share some experiences we’ve had these last couple of years working with a few reuse and donation based nonprofits here in Portland, Oregon. That’s where we’re based.
M: Lean Portland is really a collection of people like Brion and myself and somewhere between half a dozen and 500 more, depending on how you count, of people who have had training in Lean to some extent and are out there trying to make work better at public service sector companies. Mostly, we focus on nonprofits with an environmental mission, but we’ve done some work in homelessness here in Portland and are just trying to fill in the cracks of our free time, helping get projects to success. We’re small; we’ve been around for five or so years doing different things and, every year, we’re growing a little bit and continuing to spread the word.
B: The first thing we want to do is try to explain this concept of Lean because there’s some interesting perspectives people have when they hear that word and sometimes it’s negative and so I just want to make sure we’re all on the same page of what that means.
It’s actually a word that was used to describe what was observed in Toyota. There were some study missions that took place in the late-80s to go study why the Japanese were beating the US in the electronics and the automobile manufacturing sectors. They were losing market share to the Japanese and they were losing market share on the electronics as well because the products were less expensive and higher-quality. And so when they went to go study that, they noticed that the operations were run with less people but they were more efficient and higher quality and less inventory, less space requirements and that was really intriguing to them so they documented this and that was the word they came up with, the best way to describe it was Lean so it’s kind of stuck. But when a lot of people who we talk to hear that word, they immediately think that it’s running your operations with minimal amount of people and that everyone is taking on extra work and overloaded and that’s not what the goal is.
What we’re really trying to do is engage the employees in the work and help them identify problems in their area and make them visible and obvious for everyone to see instead of hiding the problems, but we need to do that in a very respectful way that we’re going into their work areas and asking them questions; not telling them what to do because they are the experts at their job. And so as consultants in our jobs, we have a lot of ideas on how to do things differently, but at the end of the day, the people that do the work have to come up with those ideas and try them out themselves. They know what’s going to work best; we can just give them some things to consider or think about.
We have to make those decisions at something called the gemba, which is where the work is being done, and so we can’t do that in a conference room, we can’t do that at a high level in a meeting; we have to go talk and interact with people who do that work and try to figure out how can we make your job easier, simpler, less stressful, less strenuous, less frustrating so that you can actually do the work that you really want to be doing; not doing the stuff that’s distracting and keeping you from why you took the job in the first place. And so a lot of it is around just working smarter, not trying to make people go faster, and we also want to have people more flexible. So things change all the time and the more people are trained to be able to do different jobs and tasks to deal with the ebbs and flows of what happens on a daily basis, the more flexible and call it agile the organization can be and you can handle your customer requests as they come in at sporadic times. Unfortunately, your customers don’t drop off in a consistent pattern throughout the day, evenly spaced out. They come in batches and groups and overloads your processes, so that’s why it’s nice to have that flexibility into your workforce.
As we free up time by doing things more efficient, we can allow the organization to take on more work or provide more value, which we’ll talk about, to the customers. And so that’s not about reducing staff, it’s about doing more with the current stuff you have. And so again, not try to make people work harder or cut down the number of people, it’s to make the job easier so people don’t feel as overwhelmed.
By looking at what the customers really value and trying to understand that, what we try to do first is reduce the waste in the process, and I’m going to talk about what that means. A lot of that waste shows up between process steps; not necessarily in the process. That’s the easy place to start is how do I take this task that takes three minutes and cut it to two minutes? but instead, when I complete that task, why does it sit for 10 minutes between a process and our customers will feel that and their waiting that whole time? so I could shave that one minute off, but it’s still going to sit for 10 minutes in between that process. That’s where we first start looking for some of the waste. And so we want to get things through the process faster; I’m going to enhance or go into more details on that. That would free up some resources so then you can figure out what other services or value can we provide to the customer.
The other real important thing about this is you want to make sure you’re operating as a team or as a system; not as individuals or specific departments or work areas because it’s got to operate across all those areas smoothly. That’s what we first look at is how smoothly are the products and services flowing through your organization across different departments. When we talk about donations, it’s how smoothly do the donations come into the door and come through the processing and back out, available-for-sale, and then to the customer? the other piece then is there’s back-office processes and so when there’s requests for grant submissions, how long does it take to go through that process before it gets completed and filled out and submitted? you’ll see that it gets stuck, a lot of the times, in between those processes and that holds up the whole thing. Those are some of the key concepts that we’ll enhance on here.
Some of the benefits for an organization to go down this path would be, first, the employee and volunteer engagement. If you can make the processes simpler and easier and take out some of the waste, they have a better experience either as a volunteer or the staff, can spend more time interacting with their customers or actually processing information and processing donations; not looking for things and searching for things and trying to fix problems that have been recurring all the time. So if you can speed up the time for a donation to get through your facility, it can reduce the amount of space requirements because you’re removing things that don’t belong in the process and kicking them out, you can lower the inventory levels and that’s kind of tied in with the space, but also, the inventory is a good indicator of where problems are at, and so when problems start to accumulate, you can see that more easily. It reduces the amount of wasted time in the process, it helps focus you on errors and mistakes and try to remove those.
I mentioned it makes the problems more visible so they stand out in and are more obvious, otherwise, usually what organizations we see is they have some of the problems are visible and some of them are not and we’re only walking working on the ones that are obvious and visible and that can be a challenge. We want to get all the problems on the table so we can know which ones to go after first. You’ll have much more flexible workers to be able to handle the different changes and demands that come to your organization. That, ultimately, will result in reduced expenses and costs, but we usually don’t start that because you can make some maybe poor decisions not knowing the process that well and making decisions that seem good from a financial standpoint but can be not good in the long run or not good for your customers. So, usually, we say if you focus on making the process better, the cost savings will come later on, but not to focus on that as the primary mission. Ultimately, it’s going to increase the value and the satisfaction of the customers and any other stakeholders that you have.
M: Could I just make a quick point, Brion? What you first started out by saying around employee and volunteer engagement came to mind because we’ve done a number of projects where we’ve helped the team streamline their employee onboarding process. I remember making a process map of the volunteer onboarding process at Social Venture Partners and it was really powerful to see the team come together and actually just use sticky notes on a wall to map out the process. They had this one section where it was iterative and there was a lot of back and forth in negotiations between the volunteer and the organization. Because it was this kind of creative back and forth process, they didn’t think they could map it out at first, but we just did it and we did it in a circle format and it just really worked for them and they started to see where it was so confusing and why and they were able to get their hands around that process and start to improve it.
B: There’s five main principles that I’m going to share and the first starts at the top with value. Value is defined by your customer or your stakeholders. And so, often times, organizations feel like they have a pretty good idea of what their customers want, but there are a lot of assumptions that go into that and what we want to do is go back and really challenge those and really ensure that you do understand your customer and what they want exactly. We find, a lot of times, people assume that and then they actually go talk to them and asked, specifically, “Is this, the service or the product we’re providing to you, is this exactly what you want?” and, often times, they learn a lot from that discussion that says, well, we’re not quite meeting their needs. Maybe there aren’t any other options and that’s why they’re selecting us, but there’s also opportunities to make it better if we can incorporate that into our processes going forward. So that’s really important first step is that we have to make sure we’re actually providing what they want and so we need to spend time getting that feedback and sometimes that’s tough to hear, but that’s the first important step.
One more comment. What we define that is based on a simple question is are they willing to pay for that? that can be tricky with some nonprofits, depending on their models, that maybe the person is not directly paying for that, but is someone willing to pay money for that product or service, and if not, then we have to question is that really important.
Once we’ve determined that it is something of value, that they do like it, they do want to support it, then we have to figure out what are the steps it goes through, and that is called the value stream. This is the whole system that it goes through; not just the receiving process and not just the checkout process and not just the denailing process, but how does that whole process work? that was kind of what Matt was alluding to, was just a sticky note exercise of putting all the steps together because it crosses different groups and a lot of people know their part of the process but not the whole process.
Often, we’ll just get people together and map out the entire system and then say how is it working and where are some of the opportunities to make the whole process flow a little better? that’s where we get into this flow concept where we start getting into some more of the tools and concepts, start looking at why is work being done in a batch format, why are people maybe holding up their work for every Thursday to process the items instead of smaller amounts on more frequent basis because now things are getting held up in the process. Usually, we see this happens because people are trying to optimize their own time, but they’re forgetting that they’re part of a system and they are slowing up the whole system to try to make themselves be efficient, and so we start to teach some of those concepts around smaller batches or down to doing one thing at a time and moving it along the process. Even if it feels like it’s not the most efficient way to do it, it actually helps the system run better.
Then we’ll get into this pull concept that says now, once I know how my process works and I’ve got it running pretty smoothly, now I’m going to wait until I get a signal or a trigger or something from the next process that says they’re ready for me to send them that document or send them that donated item and I don’t shove work to the next process; I wait until they say they’re ready for it. That prevents us from doing things too early or doing too much at one time and it also helps us identify when there’s a process issue where someone is getting stuck or behind and we can go fill in and help out and get them unstuck. Whereas before, when we’re not paying attention to this, we just kind of keep staying busy and we’re just pushing work to the next process and overloading it when, in fact, if we connect all the processes together in this pull system, then when there’s a problem in one area, the whole process is stopped and that exposes the problem and then we can go tackle that issue instead of just continuing to ignore it and pretend like it’s not happening.
And then the last step is perfection, is trying to continuously make improvements over and over again, that it’s a never-ending process; you’re never going to say, “We’re Lean.” It’s a journey that you go through to try to continuously make the process better and better and then you have to go back to the beginning and say, “Is this really what the customer still want?” Because even a couple of months later, things could change. That’s the high-level process that we typically go through with organizations.
I mentioned the term the value stream and so here being the example of taking reclaimed lumber from a decon site, it gets moved by a driver, it goes maybe to a temporary location to be stored, there’s volunteers that are involved with processing the wood, it gets moved to a lumberyard where it’s being sold, and then it ends up with the customer. That would be more like the full value stream of the process and, often, we look at specific boxes in there and try to make this efficient, but we have to make sure we’re connecting them all together.
And so one of the things we’ll do is first understand that process and then we’ll start to put and quantifying where’s the inventory being held today, where is it getting stuck in the process, and that can just be by identifying how much material is at each of this process steps. And so if a lot of it is at the temporary lot, where it’s waiting to be processed, that’s where we would start our improvement work because that’s, apparently, where the bottleneck is in the process and we figure out why is it stuck there. Is it a problem with getting a driver there? Is it space in the lumberyard? Is it efficiencies with the denailing process? but all those can help us. By mapping out the whole value stream, we get to see where the best place to improve and where our focus should be.
And then once we find some issues in our process, we identify different types of waste and these are the areas where we’re not providing value. Those things like transportation where things are just moving around, that effort does not directly result in value. It takes time and so we want to reduce the amount of transportation and movement as much as possible.
I already mentioned inventory. Where you see inventory, that’s an opportunity to figure out where we can reduce down some of that backlog and figure out why it’s piling up there. We have motion, where you see people searching for things or reaching continuously for something or grabbing something that’s not near their work area, having to go get it all the time, why can’t it be closer to them? usually, that’s inefficiencies that we see at the work area itself. Waiting would be waiting for decisions to be made, waiting for someone to respond, waiting for help, and that’s an opportunity that’s holding up the customer and taking time.
Over-processing would be you think you’re providing some value, but you’re maybe going above and beyond what the customer really needs and so that could be how much cleaning do you do on a donated item? how much fixing do you do with that? how well do you tag the items and price them and where you mark those? and so those would be questions that you would have to ask and go back to your customer and say are we overdoing it, and if so, then that’s taking more time but the customer is not valuing that extra time.
Overproduction would be going and working ahead of something when it’s not needed yet, which means I’m putting off doing something that probably is needed right now. That’s an issue that’s not being addressed and, instead, I’m working ahead on something else. Defects relate back to errors and mistakes, so things are priced wrong or they’re put in the wrong location or you accept an item that you shouldn’t be accepting. Those are errors and mistakes and those create extra time that you have to deal with that you really don’t want to be spending time doing.
And then sometimes we have people in the wrong place so we have skill issues where we have people with lots of talent and their talent is not being utilized properly. So how do we get them in the right area where they can be very successful and take advantage of the skills and knowledge that they have? we also have a lot of people’s great ideas and we’re not going out and asking for those ideas and so we find out that, yeah, I’ve been talking about this for a long time and I just quit bringing it up because no one would do anything about it or I didn’t know how to proceed with that idea. So you see these kind of issues that got buried that really could help the process work better if someone would help them implement them.
This is one of the ways we try to reduce the overproduction. Another nonprofit in Portland is called Free Geek and they handle mobile devices, among other things. On the left, you see that this is their work area for processing and handling the mobile devices and they would have boxes of phones that were donated and they would go through the phones and try to pull at ones they thought were valuable, but sometimes they would work on items that were not needed, like they already had too many of them, and there would be phones in there that they probably should be working on but didn’t think were valuable but they were.
And so what we were able to do is first just get it organized. We gave them some ideas and did some training on something called 5S and, on the upper right, you can see that they continued with that effort and really cleaned up their area. The second thing we did, though, in the bottom right, was help them organize what they actually had available to work on and then what was really cool is then the person who was running the sales, they do some online sales, he was able to come into that area, look at the rack of items and say, “Here is the order of things I’d like you guys to work on. Work on two of these, three of these, one of those, don’t work on those; we’ve got plenty of those and those aren’t selling. But anytime you see something in this box, maybe it’s an iPhone 4S, process those all the time. We can sell those all day long and make good money on that.” So they were able to connect in and make sure that no one was overproducing the wrong items just by having visibility to what they had in stock and what the process so there was less of a guessing game on what to do.
M: Here’s an example of a project we did at Rebuilding Center. And, Kelly, I imagine you have a perspective on this project too, so maybe I’ll share what I know and then, if you’ve got any remarks. So in this project, you’re seeing, on the left-hand side, the original. Actually, it wasn’t the original, but it was the most recent version of the checkout area. What we did with the team was, and by that, I mean the team of employees, there was four or six of them. We gave them little shopping assignments to go empathize with the customers to see what was value add and non-value add.
So we had them build a dog house and had them replace a door, a few typical things that you do when you go to the Rebuilding Center, and then we had them go through the entire customer process including checkout and the team landed in the checkout area as being one of the main places of frustration from the customer’s experience. What they’d get is people waiting in line with questions behind people who are just there to check out and so there would be a lot of crossing of flows. There’d also be people inadvertently bringing items up to the front counter, like a door or other pieces of lumber that they shouldn’t, and so there was just a lot of confusion going on.
And then over the period of a few months, we met and did a lot of cardboard cutouts with the same staff to figure out how to solve some of these flow issues and what you’re seeing is the most recent version here, on the right, where they rotated the customer-facing area to a bigger space and got it away from that roll-up overhead door you see on the right-hand side, and that allows easier flows of traffic and there’s a more obvious queuing space. The same checkout counter, now on the right, can just be further optimized in a lot of different ways, you can see it’s much larger, and the other things that aren’t visible from this photo is how they’ve addressed a lot of line of sight concerns. And so, eventually, they’ll be able to have line of sight to the lumberyard and to the main entrance to provide this cash register area kind of as a command center for the business.
So we got started there I guess a couple of years ago now. The lifecycle of this project is still ongoing. It took us maybe six months or so to get the project off the ground. We really had a lot of communication to do with the organization. The executive director, at the time, was involved in this project and he had to help find money for the building permit and the architectural fees involved because this project was significant enough to require a city permit.
And so this is a good example of a Lean project in that the staff had to be fully aligned and onboard with the improvements. Everything that was done here was done by Ella Rose and by other members of the staff so that they really were the ones that were championing and supporting and making this project happen because it was really all about their work environment and their flows. And so it was just a really fun project to see it come to fruition. It was a nice lifecycle, too, of being an outsider helping a team work together and their trust in the outsider, in us facilitators. It took months to go through this lifecycle of building relationships with people to create the trust that they were really going to be the ones that experienced the benefit. Kelly, were you around Rebuilding Center at this time a couple of years ago?
Kelly (K): I was, yes.
M: What was this project like from your experience?
K: Yeah, I think I would echo what you said. I think it definitely was important to involve our employees in the process and one of our employees, Pete, was heavily designing the construction, which was a real point of excitement and empowerment for him. We are, I would say, on kind of 1.0 of this project. The initial plan was to have two points for our customers to kind of divide between purchasing or questions and concierge services, but we haven’t figured out that 2.0 part yet. So, yeah, definitely, we can already see the impact. This area changes on a daily basis and at least a weekly basis where we’re still kind of tinkering with it to see what works best.
B: The arrow is pretty new, right? it’s only the last couple of weeks?
K: The arrow is new, yeah, and it blinks. Yeah, and in addition to this, another side project that just got implemented was we have an entrance, the closest entrance to this from our main traffic street on Mississippi Avenue and it just got opened up with some removal of racks – yeah, exactly – creating a direct line of sight. So when you come in before, it was unclear if you were at the Rebuilding Center, if you were okay to come in, where you should go, and now, it’s still a work in progress, but now you come in, it tells you you’re here, and when you turn, you can quickly see where the register is, with that blinking arrow telling you where to head.
B: Yeah, when you used to walk in, on the left side picture here, you would see just a wall of doors and have no idea where the entrance is. Now, if you go on the right side and take a right, you’d see that checkout area. You can see right to it.
K: And I think in a lot of reuse stores and reuse warehouses, we’re using these racks that go very high and so from the customer’s perspective, it’s really hard to get your bearings. And so I think either creating those lines of sight and those pathways where people can figure out how to get where they need to and/or the wayfinding signage, so we’re really trying to up our game there.
M: I’ll share a little bit about doing a waste walk at a deconstruction site. I think you all probably pretty familiar with what a deconstruction site looks like. I think, from my opinion, the thing that’s consistent is that they’re all different and they’ve all got a lot of hazards and they’re all dangerous. And so there’s a lot to look out for, especially through the eyes of the staff in there working to remove salvage material, a lot of safety concerns, a lot of personal protective equipment required. So in this case, this is up in Vancouver, Washington and, actually, it’s a house that my day job business is having decommissioned, and so I was just able to go across the way to take a look.
I walk in the garage and the only real obvious waste that I saw onsite was there was some situation with the trailer or the truck that was going to take the reclaimed material back. Logistics and driving is really, I think, one of the more challenging jobs for the reuse industry is just all of the pickups and drop-offs and sites located in remote locations and different configurations of vehicles have different capacities. I walked in and I saw material waiting, it was nicely stacked up in the garage, the right work was being done on site and the denailing part will be done at another location where those flows can be optimized. So this is the obvious one and I think it’s a pretty routine form of waste that we see. When I say that there’s waste on a site, it’s not really a value judgment of the quality of the work being done; it’s really just an opportunity. And so it’s like, “Oh, well, if we didn’t have to do that, that would be better.” And that’s really all I’m looking at when I look for waste is just where are the opportunities.
This was my method of how we did the waste walk and so it’s a really great way that you can do this with a team and it’s the way I would recommend you do it, is you do a little bit of training explaining what the wastes are, and then you look at the work environment together and you look for things that are less than ideal and the, in that way, you engage the staff, you see where their expertise is and the things that they’re prideful about, and also where they see what they’d like to have better. Through this house, and you can see the form here I’m using, it just has the three wastes, we just learned about eight wastes and three is just, I think, to make it simpler. And so I think about it as stagnation, meaning the collection of inventory waiting, overproduction, over-processing, and defects. And so in that case, it’s just the stuff we didn’t take as I saw it. In this example, it was a pretty fast turnaround and the owner of the house didn’t want to accrue any additional cost of decommissioning, so there was just the high-value items were removed quickly and that left a lot of other salvage material that is probably going to go to the dump, so there’s opportunity there.
In movement, which includes motion and transportation, we saw the pile of the hardwood floor in the garage and, apparently, through talking with the guys, it was because the truck was not equipped to transport all the materials, so they’d come once and they’re going back for a second time, so maybe there’s some opportunity there. I know those jobs are hard and the actual truck drivers are really well… They’ve been doing that kind of work in this region for a long time, so my guess is that would be a hard nut to crack, but it is what it is.
And then, lastly, I spoke with the guys who were actually doing the deconstruction work and it was really quite a treat. The room was kind of dark and it was a little bit cold and the guys were right at home. It was one of the guys used to work for the forest service and I could just see how he was really in his element and he didn’t have any complaints. I asked him, “Do you have your right tools? do you have what you need to do this work efficiently?” and he really did.
The things that I saw as what could have been an option but might have been more headache than they’re worth is the heater, power on the job site, and lighting always challenges. They do have flashlights and battery-powered tools, which they maintain, and it works fine. I just threw these down as possibilities because I was really looking for it. So I think that covers the deconstruction site waste walk. Again, just in summary, these are quick and fun things you can do with, say, a group of people that work the loading dock at your retail location or provide one of these forms to your cash register people and have them just brainstorm what are the options and then take that feedback and see how you can help them remove a little waste in their day.
Here’s a couple of more snapshots taken back from the Rebuilding Center within their work environment and I just want to make a point about how there is value adding work that staff do and we can do improvement efforts that helps optimize staff’s time as far as taking away the wasted time of looking for office supplies. On the right-hand side is a nice example of organized environment. On the left-hand side is a safety station that’s customized for the area where the safety station is located, stuff is cleanly labeled and organized in a way that doesn’t allow for expired equipment and supplies. And it’s really important to remember who’s working in the environment and what they need just to have the base level human respect of providing a safe work environment and to be organized. And all of this stuff takes a lot of time and energy to gather up the resources and the energy to get organized and then to sustain being organized, but to follow the principles of respect, it’s essential. Really it is.
So we’re going to carry on to a couple more examples at Rebuilding Center. Kelly, feel free to jump in here. What you’re looking at is racks of hardware on sale on the floor of the retail environment and you can see they’re color-coded. These color codes, they correspond to a processing area that’s been designed so that when material is received, it can be quickly processed by volunteers and then brought out to the retail environment. And so you can see how friendly and inviting an environment like this is. There’s staff to help out with little training involved.
K: Yeah, this has been a project that was led by Chris Larson and we’ve gotten a lot of feedback from our customers on the front and also from our volunteers who help us in a big way with our rough sort and our fine sort. The color coding, well, the buckets in that picture in the Power slide are new in themselves. The buckets were implemented two years ago and they have half-lived on them and they’re all labeled, but the color coding has made it incredibly more easy for, primarily, our volunteers to do the rough sort and then the fine sort. A side benefit of it is that the design of that hardware sorting room happens to be really easy to use for our volunteers with special needs and that been a great benefit to have. So the visualization of it and the color coding, I would recommend for any organization, especially those who work with folks who have different abilities and different ways they want to sort things.
B: Kelly, could you talk about Chris’s role too? I think that’s pretty unique.
K: Yeah. Chris’s role, he’s our first dedicated staff member who is solely focused on process improvement, so he’s our process improvement coordinator. And so he has activated, primarily in the store so far but more and more throughout the organization, to help us find improvements in how we process materials and our customer engagement experience, so how folks who visit us are experiencing the Rebuilding Center, from customers to volunteers to our staff. We had a grant, we have a grant, actually, we’re in the last year of it that’s funding his position and it has been a game changer. It’s really a challenge. I think anyone in this industry could attest to the day-to-day operations are just so heavy in terms of processing the materials and processing the people, and so to have someone here who’s time is not on the floor, who’s really dedicated to that has been a game changer.
B: I think we can attest, Matt and I, from just when we come in on an infrequent basis to see the progress over time and it’s been pretty dramatic, just the last year or so, of what’s been changing and the activity happening so, yeah, I think Chris has been doing a great job there.
K: Yeah, and we’re lucky to have lots of time customers and the changes are palpable. You can hear people saying we’re known for… Many reuse centers are known for being a treasure hunt, but sometimes we can be a treasure hunt to a fault where it’s a bit more of an impossible treasure hunt, so we’re glad to be finding the balance there for folks.
M: So on screen are just a few more projects at the Rebuilding Center that Chris has led. You can see a lot of customer facing information, very appropriately design for the environment of the Rebuilding Center. It just looks great.
B: This is what I was just clarifying, the pricing, I think, was a confusion for a lot of customers, which then they had to go find a staff person, which is taking time, and then that staff person gets pulled off the job they’re working on, and then it’s a disruption and not as good of an experience. If things are simpler, then that saves time, effort, and makes the customer experience a little better.
K: And this reflects the hardware sorting slides and you can see the rec-1 lumber on the chalkboard is yellow, the frame showing the details on that is yellow, and then we’re working on having they lumber bays themselves have that color coding. So that wayfinding, there’s so much signage in this these reuse centers – from safety to pricing to where to find things – and so we’re trying to experiment with that color coding, including the colors of our doors so that people know how to get from one place to the other.
J: This is Joe, if I can jump in for a second. One of the things, to dial it up a little bit, one of the things I’ve always noticed in our industry is that we have, historically, we tend to preach to the choir and as our industry has grown, we’ve realized that we can’t just depend on our hard-core shoppers who are willing to sort through anything to get a bargain and that, as an industry, to grow, we’ve had to make it easier for a broader spectrum of the population to reuse and to shop at our stores. So I remember the old days of shopping the Rebuilding Center 15 years ago and these changes are dramatic and it’s all about those customers and all about getting product back out the door and making sure they have a really good experience. So I just wanted to highlight that from having seen many reuse organizations across the country. There isn’t a single one that I’ve ever seen that couldn’t benefit from a lot of – all – of these ideas.
M: Yeah, thanks, Joe. It seems like every direction you turn is a ripe environment for a new idea. Here, you’re taking a look at another example of providing information to the customers. On the left-hand side, it’s pricing; on the right-hand side, it’s some wayfinding for vehicular traffic. They can get people driving in the wrong way down the alley and you can only imagine how much confusion and frustration that caused.
K: We haven’t had a single car go that way since that sign went up, which is more than we were expecting.
M: Kelly, you might want to remark on this, it’s a snapshot of a current work in progress. Chris told me that, on the left-hand side, which was meant to be a before photo, actually it wasn’t a before photo. This is a much after photo of how clean it got, but now on the right-hand side, then you see this environment where it’s actually ready to actually be used for something.
K: Yes. I think I don’t know if it was Brion or Matt, in the beginning, was talking about space utilization and kind of over inventory and we’re finding… At a point, we were looking at do we need to relocate to get more room to do what we do and we realized that, through some of the space utilization, we’re actually sitting on quite a bit of space that if we just use it more efficiently, we can use it for what we need it for, which may not be retail. In this case, this is our mezzanine, so it’s actually on a second story from our store, and this has been kind of a dumping ground for storage, which has meant that something as simple as needing more price tags may take a 20 minute search and you may not find what you’re looking for, so then we’re ending up we’re ordering and spending more money on things we already have.
So a great volunteer named Paul, who is a construction contractor, has been volunteering tons of his time and care into this project. So, yes, on the right is you can see some of the salvage storage for walls and adding a floor there, there’s another side of the room right behind this photo. If you were to do a 180 and you would see the other side, which is being upgraded as well. These trusses make it so that this can’t be a permanent retail or office space, but we can use it for storage, so really trying to find any efficiencies we can for our team getting what they need.
M: So, lastly, before we open it up for questions, I just want to make some remarks about what I heard coming out of Chris, the Process Improvement Coordinator at the Rebuilding Center, because I thought these were so powerful. These were things that he said about how he makes decisions on when to tackle a project or not.
He works within existing constraints, and that includes investing very little money or, as it’s a reuse store, identifying things that come in that he needs for a project but don’t spend money on it. Do projects that staff support, which means making improvements that matter to people. Don’t do everything needed. He talked about how there’s just so much opportunity for improvement work to be done. He could go through and do everything in a haphazard sort of way that won’t last and rather than doing that, he’s doing things with permanence. And so he knows he can’t do everything that’s needed, but for the things he can do, he’s doing in a high-quality way and I think that really makes a difference to see lasting outcomes with his effort.
And so I wanted to bring you back to these principles of improvement because what’s on screen are the way that Chris has seen and adapted… He’s made a commonsense approach to making decisions on how to move forward with improving at the Rebuilding Center. And although we could talk about and you can facilitate workshops around identifying who your customers are, what value we provide them, setting up flow and pull and work toward perfection, those things have to be translated to the environment you’re working in. And so your first job or our first job is to think about Lean but think about it from your customers and your context that you’re working within and then make it appealing and make it make sense for the people you’re working with. It doesn’t work to use a bunch of jargon terminology that’s not easily understood by the staff that you’re working with. It really has to be with the people on the floor.
And so I just wanted to, again, commend Chris for what he’s done and his attitude there at Rebuilding Center. He’s making a big difference for that store and I think it will last for a long, long time. That was all we had as far as the pre-planned program. We’ll take a minute for questions or turn it back to you, Joe.
J: Well, I’ve got one question that might prime the pump a little bit here. I think many of us do elements of this intuitively, either by nature or by being taught elements of it along the way. Can you talk, for a moment, about the benefits of doing this in a much more intentional way and how you would go about starting that intentional method of looking at it all?
M: Yeah, you bet, Joe. Thanks. This is Matt; I’d like to take that one. Yeah, I think the benefits of being intentional about it are that we can just accomplish a lot more. I find a lot of process improvement work to be really… There’s a technical aspect to it, but there’s a social component that you have to go in parallel with. And so to talk about and make safe the ownership and improvement work that staff can do, managers can stop becoming the bottleneck to improvement work and we can start to allow the 10 or 20 or thousands of people that work in the environment to make improvements.
There’s a 2017 Gallup poll I was just reading about last night that said 3 out of 10 people don’t feel like their opinions matter at work. Well, imagine if we create a culture where everybody at work, 10 out of 10 people, have got some basic training in what a process is and who their customers are and some pre-permission to make improvement work. Now we’ve got an army of scientists, as they say, rather than just a manager that’s trying to manage all of the improvement work who’s already overburdened with everything they can do.
And so your other question, Joe, was how would you go about getting started with this. It’s cultural, but you’ve got to do some tools too. You can’t just have good relationships, you have to actually do things. So do the waste walk with staff, starting to let people know that their improvement matter and that they’re responsible for improving their own job and maybe it’s within some certain constraints. For example, I work in healthcare and there’s a lot of safety issues and we’re in a very regulated environment, so people can’t just go changing anything they want to, but we put limits on it and, within those limits, people have the freedom. And so, as leaders, we need to define what that is and provide some skills and training and some tools and methods for people to fix stuff that they see that’s broken.
B: Yeah, this is Brion. I think giving people permission to make improvements I think is really important and there is some intuitive stuff that says, yeah, we don’t need a lot of training on how to clean out this area that’s been poorly utilized and make it look nicer and simplify it and color-code it. Those are kind of no-brainer improvements, but there’s a couple of other things that do come up that we want to make sure is coordinated. One is make sure we’re not taking on more projects than we can actually handle and be successful with, but the second one is we’re not pushing problems to other groups and areas.
I’ve seen it where people will try to make improvements to their own area and by making other people do more work for them like, “Here, fill out my 12-page form so that I can make my job efficient,” but they’re actually pushing the work to the people doing the value-added work and it’s taking away from that work to fill out their form. So they’ve sub-optimized their work to make their job easier but it’s actually made the process take longer and more confusing, so that’s not a good improvement and that’s why it needs to be coordinated; it can’t just be everyone does their own thing. So I think the one is just giving permission to it, but then also keeping some coordination around it and I think that’s where you’ve see that role is pretty helpful to have somebody keeping an eye on all these different activities to say, “Hey, you can’t do that,” or, “Have you talked to the other group? have you talked to that other department? have you talked to the customers?” before you make just random improvements all over the place.
J: Great, thank you. Other questions? All right, I guess not. Brion, Matt, I want to thank you very much, very deeply for being with us today. As you folks might know, this was just our start at doing webinars. We’re hoping to do a lot more. We know that there’s a lot of common threads, common questions, and common issues throughout our industry that we’re hoping that we can help solve together. Brion and Matt, I really thank you again for your time and your experience. I think there’s a lot of benefit that our industry can gain from these principles and these insights. And thank you, everyone, for joining us. Really appreciate your being with us today.
B: And I want to thank Kelly, too, for joining in and Chris for helping get our thoughts coordinated here.
K: Thanks, everyone.
J: All right. Thank you, everybody.